The worst racing mistake of all - or was it?

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The 1928 RAC Ulster TT was a very important sports-car race, and after nearly six hours driving over the distinctly difficult road circuit, Kaye Don, the popular Brooklands driver, was declared the winner, in a supercharged 1½-litre Hyper Lea-Francis. Second to finish, seemingly a mere 13sec in arrears, was Leon Cushman’s supercharged 1½-litre FWD Alvis. A 19/100hp Austro-Daimler was third in this handicap contest. That result, anyway, has been accepted ever since.

Yet doubt was cast on it in an article on tile FWD Alvis cars which G N S Davies wrote for Motor Sport, the supposition being that A V Ebblewhite, the time-keeper, had miscounted the laps in this 30-lap race and that the Cushman Alvis actually finished nearly half-a-lap in front of the Lea-Francis. The story continued to the effect that this error had not been discovered until all the celebrations were over, and that Capt G T Smith-Clarke, the Alvis Chief Designer, agreed to let the matter rest after the two teams had met to discuss it. Had this remarkable state of affairs not been touched upon again in the splendid new edition of The Vintage Alvis by Peter Hull and Norman Johnson, I might not have disinterred it. The authors say “…it is a bit late to get excited about it now”. I am not getting excited; but I think it may be of interest to look at the facts of what must be motor-racing’s most classic mistake of all time — if it happened. . .

But l am not by any means convinced that it did. In the first place it has to be remembered that this revived TT was an enormously important race of its kind, seen we are told by 250,000 spectators and attracting wide publicity; the results were telegraphed to 73 English towns, with much multiplication of the telegrams in the larger ones. The leading sports-car makers had entered and the outcome was of great importance to them. Can you accept that professional racing drivers like Kaye Don and Cushman, let along the makers of two rival 1½-litre sports-cars, would have been content to drop such an unfortunate error? (It has been suggested that Alvis did not wish to labour the false result because their TT cars had cheated, by using integral instead of the standard detachable cylinder-heads and might be rescrutineered!). But did the mistake occur? I am inclined to think not…

Davies said that Smith-Clarke asked him not to divulge any of this until after his death; but how did Davies know of it? Had the minutes of the team discussion somehow been leaked? Or was it simply surmise? Mr Ebblewhite had introduced handicapping at Brooklands in 1907 and had timed innumerable meetings large and small ever since. Would he have made such a serious mistake on this majestic occasion? I suppose the lap-counters might…

A few weeks after the race the RAC made the full results available to the public, which it would hardly do if there was a cover-up. And spectators’ views were published by The Autocar in which the Alvis having overtaken Don was never an issue. It also seems significant that immediately after the race Don was obviously delighted to be declared the winner, and more so that Cushman said he had been short of oil and petrol for the last five laps and, while he was able to close-up on Don at the rate of 14sec a lap, he was unable to catch him. Hardly the sort of comment a driver would make to reporters if he knew he had passed his rival and was almost a lap ahead…

The TT was run on a credit laps handicap, by classes, the 1½-litre cars being given two credit laps, the over 3-litre cars having to do the full 30 Iaps, et al. Such a system, and the method whereby cars are handicapped on time, starting in class groups, as in the BRDC Brooklands 500 Mile races, can confuse onlookers who are not close to a reliable scoreboard or can hear an intelligent commentator, unless they are able to keep their own lap-charts. But although such handicapping may cause some anxiety to even official lap-scorers, this is not to say it disrupts them; the VSCC combines credit-lap with time-handicaps for some of its races without disasters occurring… The credit-lap arrangement was no doubt used at Ulster’s TT course in order to have all the cars starting together on a road too narrow to encourage groups of cars joining the race at intervals, and also to provide the spectators with the excitement of a massed start, after hoods had been erected and engines starter-energised.

The problem with accepting the Alvis as the true winner is, when did Cushman overtake Don? Surely someone must have seen this happen? (At the subsequent discussion Don is said to have stated that he had a lap-counter in his car and was aware that Cushman had won — but how is not clear to me nor why he did not say so beforehand). In the early stages of the TT the Riley 9s led, so the crowds would be looking at them and at the big cars coming up fast, like Birkin’s 4½-litre Bentley, the 143 Bugattis, the Austro-Daimlers and “Scrap” Thistlethwayte’s 36/220hp Mercedes-Benz which, recovering from a ditch-wise excursion, set fastest lap, at 74.39 mph. They may not then have been observing the 1½-litre contingent, where the vital battle was to develop. Pit stops could also have confused matters, as in today’s F1 racing. Don came in after two hours, at about 1pm, but the time taken is not known. He then stopped again just before 3pm when in the lead, for his second replenishment stop, when The Autocar said “no time was lost that could be avoided”, which Punch would have called “a blinding glimpse of the obvious”! One is tempted to wonder whether Cushman went through without stopping, in view of his shortage of fuel towards the end of the race; indeed the Alvis was reported as running dry a mile after the finish, 2½ miles afterwards in another account. But unless the regulations, which permitted some tuning mods and extra oil-tanks, also allowed nonstandard petrol tanks, I think it unlikely. So pit stops would have affected who was leading at the relevant times.

Kaye Don was well-informed of his position from his pit; so although the Alvis was said to be gaining on him in the closing stages of the TT, he might well have been pacing the Lea-Francis, to keep just ahead. And as Cushman was so worried about running out of fuel and the low oil-pressure, if he did pass Don, why did he pull out nearly a lap on him, unless in the hope of being able to replenish, which he apparently never did at that stage in the contest? Finally, are we really to believe that such professional drivers as Don and Cushman would not have protested the result if a mistake as to who had won had been made, or that BTH, Solex and Dunlop, whose magneto, carburettor and tyres the Alvis had used, would let the credit for helping to win this important race pass to Lucas, Cozette and Avon, the respective component makers on Don’s LeaF? Both cars used KLG plugs, BP fuel, Castrol oil and Hartford shock-absorbers, or the outcry might have been even louder…

So on the whole I feel Kaye Don won for Lea-Francis; in saying this I think the Lea-Francis OC owes me a pint — of Coventry ale, of course! But for the benefit of any mathematicians who may care to devote some thought to this problem, I append time-keeper’s data.

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